Not too far from here an old factory sits quietly alongside the Farmington river. Once upon a time it was the pride of the townspeople. The products made there were superior quality and sold around the world. The company employed most of the town. Those were the good times, but now they’re gone. Groups of business people have tried to revive and repurpose the old mill—none to any good effect. Sure, there are still some tenants inside. A few businesses continue to turn out some product, but for the most part, bitter and defeated ghosts walk the hallways.
I thought about the old axe factory today as I cut up some kindling for the wood stove that heats my shop. The small Fayette R. Plumb Co. hatchet I use almost every day felt good in my hand—its hickory handle burnished smooth from decades of use. Most of the original finish on the handle has worn off, and the gold foil Boy Scout seal is tattered and illegible. I’ve had this tool since 1963 when I joined the Scouts at age eleven. Somehow, it has followed me through countless moves back and forth across the country. I’ve always taken it for granted.
The Plumb tool company can be traced back to Jonathan Yerkes, who had been an established Moreland, Pennsylvania toolmaker since 1856. Yerkes moved his concern to Philadelphia and partnered with a young man named Fayette Plumb in 1887. Eventually, Plumb bought out his partner and the name was changed to the Fayette R. Plumb Company. These were tools made to work and made to last. Over the next hundred years, Plumb manufactured fine tools in Philadelphia, until the company was consolidated with the Cooper Group and manufacturing was shifted primarily to China to cut costs.
Like so many products once made in this country, axes are much cheaper to buy from places like Mexico and China. Will those tools stand the test of time? Now, I don’t doubt that the people who toil in those foreign factories are fine folks. They deserve a shot at a better life, just like our ancestors did here. It only makes me sad that most of what remains of all that effort is a tool that will probably outlive me.
Interestingly, my particular Plumb hatchet utilizes an epoxy resin to attach the head to handle. The process, which Plumb patented on September 2, 1958 is said to reduce the vibration of the tool overall. Reducing vibration is obviously a benefit in a striking tool but not in a guitar. That gummy epoxy is still doing its job today fifty years later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an axe to grind.